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Amur Leopard Population Triples — to 103

Thanks to protective efforts in Russia, there's hope these critically endangered big cats will avoid extinction

Just a few years ago, the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) appeared to be on the fast track to extinction. Surveys conducted in 2000 revealed that only about 30 of these critically endangered big cats remained in the forests of southwestern Russia, with just two more across the border in China. With poaching and habitat loss still so rampant at the time, saving the species appeared to be a “mission impossible,” says ecologist Yury Darman, senior advisor to WWF-Russia’s Amur branch.

photo of amur leopardPhoto courtesy of US The Far Eastern Leopard ProgrammeIn 2000, surveys indicated that there were only 30 Amur leopards left in southwestern Russia. Now there are just over 100.

In fact the situation was so bad that many conservationists felt drastic steps needed to be taken. The only question was which drastic measure to take. “In 2001, during the International Workshop on Conservation of the Far Eastern Leopard in Vladivostok, many scientists and state authorities seriously proposed to catch the last wild 30 Amur leopards to ensure their survival in captivity,” Darman says. That would have protected the cats from poaching and other threats while laying the groundwork for breeding and future reintroduction efforts.

Instead, another dramatic option emerged. WWF started a campaign called “Save each of the survivors” in the hopes of halting leopard poaching and gaining support for the cats amongst local people. Meanwhile the Russian government, encouraged by the conservation organization and spearheaded by former vice-minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Ivanov, laid the groundwork to create a massive protected area for the big cats. That effort proved to be contentious, but it eventually led to the 2012 establishment of Land of the Leopard National Park — about 647,000 acres of prime leopard habitat where the animals could live and breed in safety.

All of those efforts have now paid off. Land of the Leopard National Park announced this month that the population of Amur leopards within its borders has increased to 84 adults and 19 cubs or adolescents. This is a dramatic increase over the 57 leopards counted in the national park in 2015 and the first time in decades that the Amur leopard population has exceeded 100 animals.

Darman credited hard work by “enthusiastic NGOs, scientists and really responsible state authorities” for achieving the tripling of the wild Amur leopard population in under 20 years.

Most of that increase is natural growth …more

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A Nonnative Tree, an Invasive Beetle, and the Endangered Bird Caught in the Middle

Court says federal government must clean up the mess it helped make of riparian ecosystems in the US Southwest

The intentions were noble. The results another thing entirely.

Back in the early oughts, the federal government introduced one invasive species to fight another in the US Southwest. The idea was to rid the region of a hard-to-root-out plant wreaking havoc on fragile river habitats, but one unfortunate result of the effort was the elimination of habitat for an already endangered avian species.

photo of southwestern willow flycatcherPhoto courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife ServiceThe endangered southwestern willow flycatcher migrates to the US southwest each spring to breed. It has adpated to nesting in nonnative tamarisk as the trees have spread across the region.

Salt cedar, or tamarisk (Empidonax trailii extimus), is native to Eurasia, where it is employed primarily as ornamental landscape. It was introduced to the US southwest in 1887 in an effort to stem erosion, and quickly became the bane of southwestern rivers due to its intensive water use and prolific seed dispersal.

Congress passed a law empowering the federal government to find a remedy. In 1997, under the auspices of the Plant Protection Act, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to import another invasive, the Diorhabda elongate, or tamarask leaf beetle, a Japanese beetle with an appetite for salt cedar.

But there was a flycatcher in the ointment. In 1995, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had designated the southwestern willow flycatcher, a tiny bird that migrates to the southwest each spring to breed, as endangered. As tamarisk had taken over in the region, the songbird had adapted, making the flowering tree work as a nesting place in lieu of the disappeared cottonwoods, buttonbush, and willow it preferred.

As such, the beetle represented a threat to the flycatcher's habitat. Birders and scientists alike told USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) entities just that.

The complication triggered “consultations,” as required under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fish and Wildlife expressed reservations that echoed concerns of the bird's advocates, noting that without replacing the salt cedar with native vegetation, the flycatcher would have nowhere to nest. But the service eventually signed off on the beetle plan, on the USDA's claim the program would have “no significant impact” on the songbird's ability to survive.

photoname Photo by Dan Bean/Colorado Department of AgricultureTamarisk beetles dine on a salt cedar tree.

Concessions were made. No beetles would be …more

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The Case of the Stolen Succulents

Native hipster plants are at center of California poaching crisis

In China, they are prized for their chubby limbs and cute shapes. In Korea, they are a treasured hobby for housewives. But on the coastal cliffs of California, the dudleya succulent plants are vanishing, snatched up by international smugglers and shipped to an Asian middle-class market hungry for California native flora.

photo of succulentsPhoto by Stan ShebsDemand for succulents like Dudleya farinosa in Asia is fueling destructive poaching of native plants along the California coast.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens have made five busts this year, involving more than 3,500 stolen plants, evidence that the succulent, a symbol of American hipster style, has gone global to grievous effect.

“Right now these plants are a boom in Korea, China, and Japan. It’s huge among domestic housewives. It’s a status thing,” said the department warden Pat Freeling, who spearheaded the investigation. “It’s become an exotic lotus flower succulent. Someone likened it to the next Pokémon.”

The succulents, dubbed “Live Forevers” by early California explorers for their ability to survive long ocean crossings, require little care and are often mistakenly thought to be ideal for apartment living. Each five-inch plant, with waxy, white-green leaves that grow in bud-like circles, is said to fetch $40 to $50 on the Asian market. While they are not rare in California and can be grown in nurseries, the process takes years. And nursery owners said they were not available in the huge quantities that Asian shippers seem to want.

Freeling began investigating the thefts after getting a tip in January from an anonymous woman, who got stuck in a line at a post office in Mendocino County, 150 miles north of San Francisco, behind a man who was mailing dozens of boxes to Asia.

Freeling said the man was holding up the whole line and and the boxes were dripping dirt. When the women asked him what he was shipping, the man said: “Shhhhh, something very valuable.” When she asked where he got it from, he pointed to the ocean.

Thinking he had been tipped off to an abalone poaching ring, Freeling got customs officials to X-ray the 60 boxes. He was puzzled when what they found inside was not rare sea life but hundreds of plants of the species Dudleya farinosa being mailed to Korea and China.

So began the search for dudleya smugglers. Soon Freeling found a man pulling the plants off a cliffside and shoving them into a big …more

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Bioremediation Efforts Mushroom in the Aftermath of California’s North Bay Fires

Ecologists deploy fungi in Sonoma to try to address toxic run-off from ash

Fifty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, California's Sonoma County is famous for its wine-country image — a patchwork of picturesque rolling hills and vineyards graced with moderate temperatures all year round. Beyond the grapes and quaint roadside tasting rooms, oak woodlands rich with black oak, Douglas fir, madrone, and California laurel provide habitat for abundant wildlife and ecological services like erosion control and water filtration to the surrounding area. Typically hot and dry from midsummer through late fall, these woodlands also comprise an ideal environment for wildfires. It was here that flames ignited on the evening of October 8, 2017, fueled by winds of 50 miles per hour.

photo of California firesPhoto by Martin EspinozaThe Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket Fires burned some 250 square miles in Sonoma County, and claimed more than 20 lives. They also left behind a toxic trail, raising concerns about chemiclas seeping into the region's farmlands and streams.

The fires, which also erupted in neighboring Napa and Mendocino Counties, spread quickly, reaching residential areas in the city of Santa Rosa late at night. Flames devoured nearly 250 square miles of open space and urban development, including 6,000 homes and business structures. The Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket Fires also claimed more than 20 lives in Sonoma County, and sent a cloud of toxic ash over a wide stretch of the San Francisco Bay Area for weeks. Local ecologists promptly took action, driven by concerns about chemicals seeping into the region's farmlands and streams, the Russian River, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.

"The concern about the toxic ash and fire runoff was becoming a priority," says Erik Ohlsen, a Sonoma County ecologist and founder of the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol. But, "the time frame was so small, the window was so small to do anything — how do you deploy on a scale that matches the scale of the fire, and process and strategize to catch and filter all that toxic ash?”

Ohlsen is part of the grassroots Fire Mediation Action Coalition that formed in response to widespread fire damage. In the aftermath of the fire, this group of ecologists, organic farmers, wildlife biologists, and residents discussed the probability of heavy metals, PCBs, dioxines, and a multitude of other chemicals contained in the ash contaminating local creeks, drinking water, and soil. Given the nearly 600,000 acres of agricultural land in Sonoma County, preventing chemicals from contaminating farms and vineyards was considered critical and urgent.

Within a …more

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Wolves and Wolfdogs are Not Dogs and We Shouldn’t Want Them to Be

Why bringing these wild animals home is a bad idea

There are a lot of romantic notions about wildness that make some people want to own a wolf or wolf-dog hybrid (or wolfdogs as they are commonly called) but the reality of owning these animals is far more difficult than most people anticipate. It's surprising how much misinformation there is out there about these amazing animals. Such misconceptions are far more damaging then people realize, so let’s try to clear up some of the most common myths about wolves and wolfdogs.

photo of baby sea turtlesPhoto by Light of the Dawn Wolfdogs Just because wolfdogs share many similar traits with dogs doesn't mean that you can keep one as a dog.

Until recently, the general assumption was that dogs evolved from gray wolves, but recent research indicates that the common ancestor of dogs and wolves went extinct thousands of years ago.

In a 2014 study published in PLoS Genetics, an international team of scientists used DNA sequencing to try and unravel when and where our familiar dogs have come from. The team sequenced the genomes of three gray wolves (Canis lupus) from Croatia, Israel, and China (chosen to represent the three regions where domestication may have happened), two dog breeds (a Basenji and a Dingo, both breeds from areas that have been isolated from modern wolves), and a golden jackal (Canis aureus). They compared the genomes with one another and with the previously sequenced genome of another dog breed, a Boxer (from Europe).
Based on their analysis, the researchers concluded that dogs and wolves parted evolutionary paths sometime between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago. That predates our development of agriculture, supporting the idea that dogs accompanied our hunter-gatherer forebears and only later adapted to an agricultural lifestyle.

Of more interest, though, is the fact that the three dog genomes formed a sister group to the wolves, rather than clustering under one of them. That finding suggests that dogs share a common ancestor with wolves, rather than having been domesticated from them.

Given their common evolutionary past, dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and wolves (Canis lupus) share many physical and behavioral traits and are interfertile, meaning they can mate and reproduce. But just because they share similar traits, it doesn’t mean that you can keep a wolf or wolfdog like a dog.

As the US Fish and Wildlife states: “While wolf puppies might be every bit as …more

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For Baby Sea Turtles, Beaches Are Becoming Safer But Ocean Threats Persist

Researchers struggle to assess impacts of undersea hazards like plastic pollution and overfishing

On beaches from North Carolina to Texas and throughout the wider Caribbean, one of nature’s great seasonal events is underway. Adult female sea turtles are crawling out of the ocean, digging deep holes in the sand and laying eggs. After about 60 days turtle hatchlings will emerge and head for the water’s edge, fending for themselves from their first moments.

photo of baby sea turtlesPhoto by Papahānaumokuākea Marine National MonumentBaby Hawaiian green sea turtles swim near Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Though most coastal areas in the US now protect beaches during nesting season, the future of sea turtle research depends on finding new ways to assess turtles status trends at sea.  

I have spent 36 years studying sea turtle ecology and conservation. All seven species of sea turtle found around the world are classified as vulnerable or endangered. Nesting season is an important opportunity for us to collect data on turtle abundance and trends. For those of us who have spent decades studying turtles on nesting beaches, anticipation builds as we prepare for their arrival. And when that first turtle comes ashore to usher in the nesting season, it feels as though we are welcoming home old friends.

Today most coastal areas in the United States protect beaches during nesting season. Government agencies, researchers, and volunteers monitor many beaches and help hatchlings make it to the water. These measures have helped turtle populations increase. For example, the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii), which was on the brink of extinction in the mid-1980s, has increased from a few hundred nests to over 20,000 nests laid in 2017.

But turtles face many hazards in the water, including plastic pollution and accidental harm or death in encounters with commercial fishermen. The future of sea turtle research depends on finding new ways to assess turtles’ status and trends at sea as well as on the beach.

Tallying turtle nests

Female sea turtles typically nest several times in a year. They may leave all of their eggs at one specific beach or nest at several beaches to spread out their reproductive investment. They typically return to the same stretch of coast year after year.

To monitor population trends, scientists count the number of nests made on a beach during an entire nesting season. They estimate how many times an individual female turtle nests during one nesting season, and use simple arithmetic to calculate the estimated number of females that nested …more

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For Flint Mother, There’s No Stopping Until All US Kids Have Safe Drinking Water

“I don’t want other families to go through what we went through,” says LeeAnne Walters

Until her then three-year-old twin boys began to break out in rashes in 2014 and both she and her daughter had clumps of hair falling out in the shower, LeeAnne Walters hadn’t spent much time worrying about enviornmental pollution. “I mean, I watched the news. I cared about recycling … but mostly, I just took care of my family,” she says. A stay-at-home mom with four kids to shuttle around and a husband in the military, her days were too packed and chaotic for her to able to focus on much else. But when her children began suffering from various illnesses — her older son was even suspected to have cancer — Walters began looking for answers.

LeeAnne-PortraitPhoto courtesy of The Goldman PrizeLeeAnne Walters played a key role in revealing the extent of the Flint water crisis and the associated cover-up. On Monday, she was awarded the Goldman Prize for her work.

Local doctors in Flint, Michigan, weren’t of much help. They told her the twins’ rashes were due to scabies and initially misdiagnosed her older son’s ailment. But when the water from her kitchen sink started coming out brown in December that year, Walters began to suspect she might have located the culprit. She contacted the city and asked that her water supply be tested. It took the city two more months to send somone to collect a water sample. A week later, the city employee called and informed Walters that her water had lead levels of 104 parts per billion (ppb).

“I think the one thing about it that makes me mad is that, you know, you raise your kids to eat healthy, eat fruits and vegetables... My kids’ first go to was water. Always,” she says, her voice catching.

Lead is a well-known neurotoxin and its impact on children, who are especially vulnerable to exposure, is strongly associated with problems that are extremely costly to society, including learning deficits, socialization issues, violent behavior, and other health problems. There is really no safe level of lead and the US Environmental Protction Agency considers anything over a level of 15 ppb a serious problem. Very young children, between ages 1 and 2, are particularly vulnerable, even at low levels of exposure.

Walters had all four of her children tested for lead in March 2015. Each had high levels of exposure and one of the twins was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Much of the scandal that followed regarding Flint’s water supply has …more

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